After the service, the painter left his companionís side to hook up with Jacquesí assistant. He was handed a clasp envelope, but given no information about what it contained. He said nothing of the parcel on his return to the car and tossed it in the backseat. The pair drove away over wetter blacktop, and took some of the memorialís quiet mood with them.
They did not get far before becoming mired in traffic. The driver could see no way around it on the main thoroughfare, so pulled into a strip mall to wait it out. “What’s this?” he complained.
“Purcell must have beat State in the Homecoming Football game,” answered Emma. “Students are doing laps on the bypass. Itís a tradition.”
“Tradition?” he responded with mocking. “These drunkards would be doing the same thing if they lost.”
Aloysius got out of the car to assess the situation, though the prospect of getting to the other side of town any time soon seemed bleak. Thunderclouds egged on a premature nightfall, and the students were eager to take full advantage of it. Bumper-to-bumper traffic inched along so slowly that celebrators occasionally leapt out of their vehicles to engage in boisterous exhibitions.
As Aloysius watched and listened to the pagan exuberance, he detected disconnection between what occurred in front of him and what he thought he saw, and heard, on the other side of the road in a field. Those individuals nearest him were clearly enjoying themselves, yet it was harder to determine the state of those in the fading dusk. Fleeting glimpses of nude bodies in waist-high grass suggested something of an unsanctioned nature. The sound of drunken girls screaming at all hours of the night was not unusual in a college town, but these cries included those of men. Given none of the participants were fully seen, the exclamations were unsettling. Aloysius returned to the car.
Emma noted his change of expression. “Did you see something out there?”
He shook his head, indicating he had not, but unconvincingly.
“I was wondering if you saw it.”
The passenger realized he had no idea what she was talking about. “The horse over at the stable near Nadir Mound got out last night. No one knows if it escaped or was stolen. It’s probably some Halloween shenanigans. I thought maybe you saw it roaming around in the dark.”
“Fortunately not,” mumbled Aloysius. Looking over Emma’s shoulder at a row of storefronts, he turned off the ignition key and suggested, “Let’s eat something.”
The painter was not always so guarded or scripted in what he said, yet he had grown guarded out of some repressed memory of impropriety dating from youth. He could not tell what people were thinking when they listened to him, though he was sure to offend them if he spoke too freely for too long. He did not generally have proof of this, but nevertheless twisted on his words for hours after a conversation, or until his next meeting with the person assuaged his inexplicable remorse. Given this, Aloysius’ modes of adult discourse were limited; and given Emma was a woman—and a woman to whom he was strongly attracted—, he saw only one option with her in their present straits: Silence would not only be his best defense against provoking her unanticipated (and unwelcome) candor, but also the best defense against his own imprudent remarks. This notwithstanding, the closed-in character of the deli invited frankness.
Emma blew on her hot split-pea soup. “I should probably leave after we eat.”
Aloysius eyed his Reuben sandwich moodily.
“You look sad,” she observed. “You should be happy.” She reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “We have twenty more minutes together.”
What she meant by happy was certainly grateful. He would not stroke her ego by expressing gratitude.
“Are you upset with me because of what I said about your friend?”
“Omar is my brother.”
“Of course. I would not come between you and him. I would hope you could trust me, too.”
She was trying to lure him into letting down his guard so she could pummel him with another speech on friendship. His lack of reply settled over the table like a noxious cloud.
Emma sat up to peer over it. “Why are you so grumpy?”
“Why was Erica at the service?” he asked.
Her spoon clicked dully in her bowl. “Was Erica at the service?”
“Why would she go if she hated Jacques?”
“Erica’s bark is worse than her bite.”
“What does that mean?”
“They had a thing for a while.”
“A midnight hookup.”
Aloysius could never fathom casual attitudes about sex.
“You disapprove,” she guessed. “Why do you disapprove?”
His shrug was feeble.
“Even though you won’t say, I know it’s to do with me.”
The edge of his answer frayed with feeling. “It’s just that I don’t understand.”
Emma fished a piece of ham out of her bowl to nibble on. “What don’t you understand? We’re spending time together, and having a nice meal.”
His sandwich served as a wedge to blunt a reply.
“What we have is artistic,” she continued.
He riled at her insincere appraisal of their union.
The young woman probed his look. “Are you thinking we’re in a relationship?”
He did not want to hear her deny it, so said it for her. “No.”
“Then what’s the matter?”
She denied it anyway, by letting his characterization go unchallenged.
“What’s the matter, Aloysius?”
“It’s just that I don’t understand.”
“You’ve already said that.”
He used different words. “It’s confusing.”
She was blithe. “It’s confusing for me, too.”
“My confusion is materially different from yours.”
Aloysius did not delve into specifics. “It’s to do with contradiction.”
“Contradiction?” she repeated. “Yours or mine?”
He was at another impasse.
Emma looked over with bafflement. “You speak in riddles. I can’t help you if you speak in riddles.”
He now stared broodingly at his pickle slice.
She jabbed at another morsel of meat, asking pointblank, “Are you a virgin?”
“Of course not.” Aloysius rived a piece of sour dough bread and slapped it on her plate. “Eat your soup, Emma. You never eat your food.”
“I am eating.” She picked out another piece of pork. “See?”
“And what’s this vegetarian malarkey, anyway?” he griped. “Just one more contradiction.”
The sandwich maker pointed toward the window. “Looks like traffic is letting up.”
Aloysius glanced at the dark glass, seeing Emma push away her bowl with a frown in the reflection.
“Excuse me,” she said, leaping to her feet to rush to the bathroom.
The man remained seated and mulled over the frustrating exchange. Swabbing his wound, he went to check on his companion’s state. She sat half-in and half-out of the bathroom stall, wilting under a sputtering fluorescent light. “Are you okay?” he asked.
The woman’s cheeks were blotchy, and strands of mucus dangled from her nostrils to dab the rim of the commode. He knelt down beside her to see bits of her meal floating in the bowl.
She croaked, “I have a taste for meat these days. That’s all.”
Aloysius flushed the toilet and tore off a length of tissue to blot her nose and face. “Do you need a doctor?”
“No.” Her gaze fell contritely to the floor. “I’m pregnant.”
The revelation placed him solidly on the cold floor. “Does he know?”
“You mean the father?”
He looked at her ring. “Does he know?”
“Evan knows nothing,” she rasped. “Nor will I tell him.”
Aloysius was confused.
Emma explained in her own way. “It’s harder to fall out of love than it is to fall in love.” She took hold of his hand. “Help me up.”
With one last piece of tissue to blow her runny nose, he flushed the toilet a second time and rose resolutely against the stall partition, pulling her off the grimy floor with him.
She sighed. “Sometimes all a woman wants is to be swept off her feet.”
Everything from a woman’s mouth was a riddle. “What are you going to do about school?”
“I’m still leaving school.”
“What about your scholarship?”
“I may not have a scholarship much longer.”
Aloysius asked a question to which he did not know the answer. “Why would they take your scholarship away?”
Her spirits dropped again. “There’s a scandal at school. Everything connected to Seth Bowles is under investigation, including the scholarships under his control.”
Aloysius scrambled. “But his tapes are of undergraduates…”
She hastened to add, “Thereís nothing to keep the school from tarring me with the same brush.”
“You must stay and fight,” he insisted.
“I can’t stay here.”
The older man was struck by her fatalism.
Seeing the wind gone out of his sail, she pointed out the front of her soiled dress and squeaked. “I missed.”
He took her over to the sink to wipe down the garment with a soapy paper towel. A new dynamic existed between them, although Aloysius was slow getting up to school on it.
“Can we go back to your place?” she sniffled.
“Yes,” he said, dropping the wet towel in the waste receptacle. “Letís go home.”
Chapter Twenty-five/ Back/ Contents Page
Copyright © 2007 Michael Teague. All rights reserved.